MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — What if Ward Hill Lamon had been in Washington, D.C., on the night of April 14 in 1865?
“Lincoln’s assassination would not have happened, at least not that night, that’s my take on it,” Bob O’Connor said Monday in a telephone interview.
O’Connor, who lives in Charles Town, is the author of “The Virginian Who Might Have Saved Lincoln,” a historical novel about Lamon and his relationship with the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
Lamon was born in Summit Point in southern Jefferson County on Jan. 6, 1828. When he was 2 years old, his family moved to Mill Creek – now known as Bunker Hill – in southern Berkeley County, where he grew up, O’Connor said.
Of course, Jefferson and Berkeley counties were part of Virginia then.
Lamon moved to Danville, Illinois, when he was 18 and became a lawyer. He was Lincoln’s law partner from 1852-56. And according to all accounts, Lamon and Lincoln were the very best of friends.
When Lincoln was elected president, he took Lamon with him to Washington.
“Unofficially, he was Lincoln’s bodyguard – officially, Lincoln appointed Lamon U.S. Federal Marshal of the District of Columbia,” O’Connor said. “Lamon was devoted to Lincoln. Lamon was with Lincoln every day. He slept outside Lincoln’s bedroom. He was Lincoln’s only guard.”
O’Connor explained that there was no Secret Service then. Ironically, Lincoln signed the legislation forming the Secret Service on April 14, 1865. Even then, the Secret Service was not charged with protecting the president until Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was president. The Secret Service was first established to fight counterfeiters, which remains part of its mission.
According to reports, Lamon was perfect for the role of bodyguard. He was 6-foot-4 and weighed 260 pounds. He enjoyed a good brawl and, reportedly, killed with one punch a man who was skulking around the White House one night.
He also is said to have carried a veritable arsenal on his person, weighing 60 pounds, including two Colt .44 pistols and two Bowie knives, as well as sundry other weapons like brass knuckles, a blackjack and a canesword.
Why was Lamon not in Washington that fateful night 150 years ago?
Lincoln had sent him to Richmond, Virginia, on April 11 to set up meetings with what was left of the Confederate States’ government to discuss reconstruction. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9 at Appomattox Court House, which sealed the fate of the Confederate States.
“Lamon told Lincoln, ‘Don’t go out when I’m gone,’ and he told him, ‘Don’t go to the theater,'” O’Connor said. “Lincoln went to the theater a lot and Lamon thought the theater was a dangerous place. Lamon thought Washington was a dangerous place.”
Lincoln was good about asking for advice and not taking it, O’Connor said.
President and Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by a young army officer, Henry Rathbone, and his fiance, Clara Harris, went to Ford’s Theater to see Laura Keen’s acclaimed performance of “Our American Cousin” on the evening of April 14, 1865, which was Good Friday.
The private box from which the Lincoln party was watching the play was supposed to be guarded by John Parker, of the Metropolitan Police Department.
“He was incompetent,” O’Connor said. “He left after Lincoln got in the box. It was not difficult to get into the box.”
At about 10:15 p.m., John Wilkes Booth entered the private box, pointed a .44 single-shot Deringer at the back of the president’s head and pulled the trigger.
Lincoln died the next day at 7:22 a.m.
“Lamon always felt guilty about not begin there, but he had been sent away by Lincoln,” O’Connor said. “Lamon always said he would have killed Booth.”
If Lamon had been on guard outside the door to the private box, Booth probably would not have tried to get inside, would not have attempted the assassination that night, O’Connor said.
“You don’t know if (Booth) would have tried some other time, tried again later,” he said.
After the assassination, Lamon was put in charge of arranging for the train to take Lincoln back to Springfield, Illinois, and Lincoln’s funeral.
Lamon left the government after Lincoln’s death and eventually made his way back home to now-West Virginia. He had law offices in Gerrardstown and Martinsburg.
Lamon was involved in West Virginia politics after moving back. He was considered for the Republican nomination for governor in 1876, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress that year.
He also published a controversial biography of Lincoln and his daughter, Dolly, published a book about Lincoln based on her father’s papers after his death.
Lamon died May 7, 1893, in Martinsburg. He was 65. He is buried at the Presbyterian Church in Gerrardstown.
O’Connor discovered a book Lamon wrote in 1880, but never published, called “The Life of Abraham Lincoln as President” in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. O’Connor bought the rights to the book, edited it and published it in 2010.
O’Connor will be on hand for the Book Faire and Chocolate Fest on April 25 in downtown Martinsburg.
– Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128.